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We watched Christopher Hitchens and Erich “Mancow” Muller spend a few seconds on a waterboard and emerge convinced that waterboarding is torture. While I welcome their conversions, their stunts really did not teach us anything new. Though the initial panic of having water come at them was suffering enough, they both quit before the real effects of waterboarding kicked in: they have no idea what would come if the torture did not stop when they cried “uncle.”
Torture is the systematic use of trauma to provoke a change in consciousness: the only goal of torture is to drive a person to unbearable madness. The purpose of the torture — interrogation, extortion — immaterial. Mancow and Hitchens spent a short time on the waterboard and saw that rabbithole in the distance. They bailed before any of the real terror kicked in…
But what if ending the torture at will was not an option? What if they would have undergone waterboarding as Bybee prescribed?
The Bush administration deliberately deceived the American people about its enhanced interrogation program. In doing so, they depended on the fact that Americans have a Rambo understanding about torture. In particular, they counted on people and policy makers to miss the fact that it is systematic trauma — not necessarily acute pain — that creates torture and drives people to break. We have television and movie images of electric shocks and red-hot pokers that lead us to miss the fact that damaging visible human flesh only makes up small class in the larger set of ways torturers use suffering to drive a person to madness.
Torture works by attacking the emotional centers of the brain — it breaks down the limbic system and triggers the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Trauma damages an essential part of the limbic system called the hippocampus; the head breaks down when the limbic system is compromised.
We cannot “think” with the prefrontal cortex (logic) without input from the limbic system (emotions) or the brain stem (biology of entire body). For example, the brain stem tells the limbic system that the heart rate has increased, the limbic system begins to feel emotional discomfort, and the prefrontal cortex attempts to discern what is causing the emotional discomfort and thinks about how to address that cause…Trauma’s main impact on the brain is in triggering significant over-activity of neurons and the entire brains response often results in cell toxicity and cell death to varying degrees.
A political prisoner breaks when his emotional system is so severely overtaxed that he becomes neurologically compromised. It is here that madness begins. And breaking may or may not be connected to any confession, accurate, confabulated, or plain gibberish — it happens when the prisoner’s head starts to break down.
Now to the waterboard. There are several things going on with this technique, and many are subtle to a casual observer. The technique starts by inflicting penetration trauma: this is what causes the panic that made Mancow and Hitchens cry “uncle.” This is no trivial matter — the water imposes an imminent threat to life, and this “drowning feeling” imprints itself on the nervous system as an invasive threat in much the same way as a rape, gunshot, or stabbing wound. Our celebrity waterboardees got a tiny taste of that penetration experience and bailed.
What would happen if the game pushed them further? What if they were waterboarded by the same standards that we apply to our political prisoners?
From the Bybee memo, top of page 4:
…Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air now is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds due to the presence of the cloth. This causes an increase in carbon dioxide level in the individual’s blood. This increase in the carbon dioxide level stimulates increased effort to breathe. This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of “suffocation and incipient panic,” i.e., the perception of drowning…
As carbon dioxide builds in the blood, there is a strong urge to suck in air. But there is also the effort to avoid inhaling the liquid that is starting to pool at the back of the throat. The whole body becomes wracked with spasms as the two basic reflexes fight one another. This the basis of the torture: it sets two neurologically hardwired and life-preserving complexes against one other, and this leads to an overall breakdown. The body fights a painful struggle that it loses after a short time.
Fifteen seconds aside, the prisoners are subject to forty second cycles that are repeated for sessions that span twenty minutes or more:
You have also orally informed us that it is likely that this procedure would not last more than 20 minutes in any one application.
That is what it means to be waterboarded once.
There is much noise from apologists that water never gets through the cloth to actually drown the prisoner. What they do not tell you is that this does not matter. When normal breathing gets interrupted, so does normal swallowing. During waterboarding, the prisoner’s head is tilted back so that any liquid — including saliva or nasal fluid — will build up at the back of the throat. This creates a constant aspiration threat. It is the fight to control this liquid at the back of the throat that sometimes results in the prisoner swallowing his own tongue and suffocating to death — hence the need for a trachiotomy kit in the interrogation room.
As carbon dioxide builds in the blood, the body becomes locked in the fight to keep from aspirating at the same time that it fights to take in air. As the waterboarding continues, the prisoner is slowly dying. After forty seconds or so, he gets a few breaths. But he still has to fight to keep from aspirating the liquid at the back of his throat when he gets that short break — and then they start over with a new cycle of water.
This is not a “little dunk.” It is a controlled execution that is systematically interrupted each time it starts to become lethal — a grisly hypoxic/anoxic torture.
This torture breaks people so fast because of the extreme trauma and imminent threat to life — but also because of the oxygen deprivation. Recall that attacking the hippocampus is one of the primary goals in torture. In waterboarding it is not only the emotional attack that breaks down the limbic system, it is also the hypoxia and anoxia that the torture inflicts:
The hippocampus is especially sensitive to global reductions in oxygen level in the body. Thus, periods of oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) which are not fatal may nonetheless result in particular damage to the hippocampus. This could occur during a heart attack, respiratory failure, sleep apnea, carbon monoxide poisoning, near-drowning, etc.
The terror that Mancow and Hitchens experienced was really only a small part of this torture. As the CO2 level rises in the body, the pain and terror become monstrous. And the mind goes very quickly. As cycles of this torture are repeated again and again, madness is not far away. That is, if death does not come first.
And yet, Dick Cheney and friends insist that this is not torture.
It bears repeating that torture is a systematic attack on the emotional centers of the brain — and it’s sraightforward to see how this is done through waterboarding if you just look hard enough. But the touchless techniques that the US uses in enhanced interrogation are effective, as well. Consider prolonged sleep deprivation:
…We found that the exposure of rats to 72 hr of primarily rapid eye movement SD impaired their subsequent performance on a hippocampus-dependent spatial learning task but had no effect on an amygdala-dependent learning task…Using multiple SD methods we further attempted to differentiate the effects of sleep deprivation from those associated with the nonspecific stress induced by the sleep deprivation methods. Together these data suggest that failure to acquire adequate sleep produces several molecular and cellular level alterations that profoundly inhibit hippocampal functioning.
Sleep deprivation is also a systematic attack on the emotional nervous system. It takes longer than waterboarding, but it is also easier to propogandize. Isolation, sensory deprivation, and maintaining tension by cycling prisoners through harsh and stressful conditions all systematically attack the emotional centers of the nervous system — these are also effective methods of using trauma to provoke a change in consciousness. The purpose is to slowly drive prisoners to madness.
Stress hormones, in particular glucocorticoids, primarily interact with the emotional center of the brain. Under periods of prolonged stress, the limbic system breaks down. It is the body’s physiological response to stress that makes these tortures work.
Remember that some of the very same Republicans who are now torture apologists used “McCain can’t be trusted to be emotionally stable as president because he was tortured by solitary confinement” against him in two presidential primaries.
Torture is not about inflicting “pain” in the acute sense, it is about inflicting trauma. The Bush administration devised a program to systematically inflict trauma for the purpose of driving their political prisoners to a psychological break. The Cheneys are still lying about those techniques and selling them as something much softer by saying that their methods do not “hurt”. And they are counting on the American people and policy makers to not make the torture connection.